Aelfgyva: The Mysterious Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part Two

Steph by Caroline Williams

Welcome to the second part of the post concerning Ælfgyva, the woman, who over the years has caused many a historian to scratch their heads in wonder. In this piece of work we will examine one of the possibilities as to who this woman could possibly be and what was her role at the time of the conquest. There are a number of theories, all of which have been thoroughly discounted by others, myself included. I would like to examine here one particular source that  alludes to her representing Emma, who, as I previously stated in the previous post, had taken on the English name Ælfgifu upon marriage to King Aethelred. Eric Freeman in his Annales de Normandie explains through a story that was circulating in the 14thc that Emma had been involved in an unorthodox relationship with a bishop of Winchester and had proven her innocence through trial by ordeal. She was said to have achieved this by walking barefoot across 9 red-hot ploughshares. What followed is even more absurd: her son King Edward, who had instigated the trial and had always shown harsh resentment toward his mother, begged her forgiveness and was duly beaten by both his mother and the accused Bishop Ælfwine. So, could this ridiculous tale be the scandal that we think the Bayeux tapestry is referring to? Bearing in mind that it is only an assumption of a scandal, however, the lewd depictions that accompany the image would indeed strongly suggest a scandal.

My research of this strange anecdote has turned up no other contemporary source. Quite how it shaped its way into the fourteenth century, we will never know, but what it does show is how the medieval mind-set could so effectively create the believable in the unbelievable. If we were to take this story as having some basis in truth, it would be a credible subject, if not for the trial by ordeal which would have been impossible to survive. So, if we put that aside and concentrate on the rest of it, what do we have? Emma/Ælfgifu, depicted as a bishop-loving adulteress whose scandal has somehow enmeshed itself into the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Now here comes the why, the how and what for. If we consider the scene and its place in the tapestry, the images before it show Harold standing before William having some sort of discussion. Incidentally, Harold appears to be touching the hand of one of William’s guards, but that is another story we will go into in part three. Our gaze next rests upon Ælfgyva and our priest, who is definitely not a bishop, otherwise the tapestry would have read, Unus Episcopus. rather than, Unus Clericus. If we can imagine that the two men are deep in conversation about some important topic, could the image of Ælfgyva have been inserted to allude to something that may have been better known at the time? If it was meant to be a representation of William’s great aunt Emma, she may well have been referred to by the English artist by her English name and this would be plausible.  Yet the insertion of a bishop touching her face and the lewd creature underneath them in the border is a strange way to portray so great and noble a lady such as the former twice Queen of England. Not only is she William’s great aunt, but also partly the basis for his claim to the English crown. Through her, he was a first cousin once removed to the reigning monarch, Edward the Confessor. It was because of this kinship that William sought acceptance as heir to Edward’s throne. Emma, in her time was often criticised but despite this, she was respected by her English subjects. It is not likely that she would have been denigrated in this way unless she was involved in something pertinent to the story of the conquest. And I think considering the lack of a contemporary insertion in the sources for this story, we can safely assume that there is no credence to this legend.
It would seem that there is no other connection with Emma and the tapestry and the absence of a bishop and the presence of a priest, although perhaps an error but this is unlikely, means that this cannot be the Ælfgyva story the artist is referring to. In my next post on the subject, I will be exploring with you, another Ælfgyva.

We must give credit to the intriguing artistry of the creator who at every turn and twist manages to confuse us all.

This post can also be read here https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/12/lfgyva-mysterious-woman-of-bayeux.html

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Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt, Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English,  Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and  to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her  Ælfgifu anyway.   I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who  liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.

There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu,  that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and  involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator  alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html